A Capitol Idea

Phoenix Community Alliance's new plan for the Capitol Mall sends the homeless scrambling while the city looks the other way

Officer Bernie Delaney, who has been working the area for about four years, says that as bad as the crime statistics are for the area, they don't begin to measure crimes against the homeless.

"They almost never report anything. They usually just say they'll handle it themselves," he says. "Stabbings are pretty common--with almost anything sharp--mostly because most of these people are too poor to own guns."

Jones says that the real problem for police in the area is that they are being asked to tend social problems that defy simply cleaning up the street.

Accompanying Officer Delaney and his partner Craig Merrill on their patrol of the Madison Street area, it was evident that most of their work involved keeping people moving, checking IDs, waking homeless men sleeping beneath the Seventh Avenue bridge, and occasionally trying to find lodging for people who appear too vulnerable to be on the street. Efforts akin to drawing a stick through sand. And the police know it.

"We did a cleanup in March," says Jones. "These officers were out there cutting weeds and hauling trash with the neighborhood and everyone, and a week later we were back at ground zero. You look at it and say, 'What can we do here? Who can we help? Who can't we help, and what's the answer?' It's one of the few places in the city where we have no sense of progress."

Bad as this situation is, homeless experts and many of the area's social-service providers stress the practicality of having concentrated services.

"Concentration is certainly much cheaper," says Mary Orton. "One of the things we always said to the PCA was that if we're going to decentralize, you're not only going to have to find us the site and build us the building, you're going to have to guarantee us that the increased operating costs are going to be taken care of. And that may be prohibitive."

Shultz and Keuth say the PCA is willing to lobby local governments for additional outlays. But budgets for homeless services are notoriously tight. Vic Hudenko, the state homeless coordinator at the Arizona Department of Economic Security, points out that the federal government, which provided 29,000 blankets to Arizona last winter, won't be providing any this year. At the moment, he estimates a shortfall of 24,000 blankets. DES is looking for additional funds to make up the difference.

Money is not the only issue involved in decentralization. Annette Stein, director of Maricopa County's health clinic for the homeless (which sees 3,000 to 4,000 patients a year and hundreds more with a traveling outreach van), stresses that, as grim as it is, the downtown concentration has certain practicalities.

"How far can some of these people walk, or take a bus?" she says. "And do you really want them traveling long distances if they're sick or have high fevers?"

Stein and others point out that mentally ill people have trouble following basic directions.

"They need to be walked through just about everything," says Dr. Adele O'Sullivan, the full-time physician at the clinic.

Stein recounts, "I can just tell you that when we had the AHCCCS [Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, which provides health care to the poor] office right down the street--just a two-minute walk--we'd tell people to go sign up. And somehow they never made it."

The state has since stationed an AHCCCS worker in the building to enroll indigent patients.

Stein and other social-service providers say the diverse needs of downtown's homeless--food, lodging, health care, job counseling, transportation and more--demand what she characterizes as an integrated approach.

"None of it is separate. That's why we have a very comprehensive look at the homeless issue here. We don't just look at medical needs. We have social workers here. We have a psychiatrist here. A substance-abuse counselor here. It's a multidisciplinary team. That's why it's so important for all of us to be together. We can't feed them. They have to eat. We can't house them. But they need a place to stay. Besides, our clients don't drive."

Kay Martin, who runs the Ecumenical Chaplaincy for the Homeless out of the First Presbyterian Church, at Fourth Avenue and Monroe, says many homeless people have either lost their ID or had it stolen. CASS subcontracts with Martin, who is known on the street as the "ID Lady," to track down crucial records and secure new IDs for its residents.

She says that people coming out of the prisons often don't have any identification. So they can't work immediately. Often, the IDs taken from them when they were arrested are never returned. She says it's easier to establish someone's identity once they've been in prison, because the state DOC provides documentation that the Department of Motor Vehicles will accept as proof. But for other cases, securing ID can involve anywhere from three to six weeks of waiting for birth certificates and other documents to arrive.

During that wait, says Martin, people who lack IDs can't get jobs or housing, and are likelier to be arrested for trespassing much more quickly if they're stopped.

Several formerly homeless people who had been assisted by Martin say that having a service like hers within easy walking distance of food and shelter is essential. They and other homeless people looking to get off the street say that any changes in the Capitol Mall would have to assure a balance of services, including job counseling, food, housing, transportation and far greater access to substance-abuse treatment.

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